A good pub feels a bit like a living room: a familiar, informal space where you can have a pint with friends and strangers. Sometimes there are games, food and a fire, occasionally a dog or cat. There are often pictures of old people on the walls and sports on the television.
The coronavirus lockdown has proved that the reverse is certainly not true: A living room doesn’t feel much like a pub at all. Enjoying a drink in a room that has been used for the same purpose for hundreds of years is an anchoring experience you are unlikely to get from your sofa.
Pubs are a fundamental institution in Britain. In “The Canterbury Tales,” the pilgrims begin their journey in a pub. Chartists organized protests out of the back rooms of pubs in the first half of the 19th century. And in 1953 Francis Crick and James Watson announced that they had “discovered” D.N.A. in a Cambridge pub.
Pubs have been part of daily life for countless millions of Britons through the Napoleonic Wars, rapid industrialization, two world wars, the Thatcher years and Brexit. But can they survive the coronavirus?
With the world’s second-highest recorded death toll, a lack of personal protective equipment for front-line workers and drastically insufficient testing, Britain faces severe, immediate issues during this pandemic. But as talk turns to economic recovery, pubs should be on the agenda.
Britain’s pubs have been endangered since the 1990s, but the pandemic may deliver the death blow. A recent poll found that 63 percent of people would be uncomfortable returning to pubs and bars once the lockdown is lifted. If social distancing remains in place for months to come, it would have a devastating impact on profits. This could be a disincentive for smaller establishments to reopen at all, which were on the line even before the crisis.
“Hospitality in general works on such tiny margins that even being down 10 percent is a killer,” said Lotte Lyster-Connolly, who has been behind the bar at one of my favorite pubs, The Prince Albert in Stroud, for 24 years. “But when you’re looking at only 40 percent of people allowed in the pub, I just don’t think businesses could survive.”
When pubs were told to close their doors on March 20, Prime Minister Boris Johnson lamented “taking away the ancient, inalienable right of freeborn people of the United Kingdom to go to the pub.” The government is now beginning to ease some restrictions, with tentative plans for further reopening to come. But the government’s chaotic messaging offers little clarity to pubs, which look likely to be last in line to get back to work.
Even so, they are still being charged exorbitant rents despite a total — and indefinite — loss of income. Debts are climbing, pushing some publicans toward bankruptcy. According to a survey carried out for The Times of London, two-thirds of tenants were already in debt before the lockdown; seven out of 10 said they doubted they could survive if they have to stay shut until December.
The government has provided small business bailout grants of either 10,000 or 25,000 pounds, (around $12,000 or $30,000), but they fall desperately short of covering fixed costs. Other state support is available as a loan, but that would push pubs heavily into debt.
On May 14, the government announced a “pub task force” to investigate how pubs could reopen safely. But without an extension of government financial support and a tailored survival strategy, the pub industry could be facing permanent closures on an enormous scale. #NoPubNoRent and #NationalTimeOut, campaigns led by hospitality workers, are calling for pubs to be given rent breaks during the pandemic. Either way, pubs may continue to need financial support even as restrictions lift to ensure the security of hundreds of thousands of jobs.
This is the latest installment in the pub’s struggle. For as long as I can remember, pubs have been on the brink of survival. That one shut every week was common knowledge in the 2000s. The real picture is even bleaker: Figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest that almost 15,000 pubs shut between 2002 and 2019, an average of over 15 closures a week.
Before the coronavirus arrived, the biggest problem facing pubs was “pubcos,” large companies that own hundreds of pubs, rent the facilities to publicans — and charge hefty fees in the form of exclusive alcohol sales contracts, known in the industry as “wet rents.” These companies, which own about a third of all pubs in Britain, have helped squeeze out independent pubs. They are also known to flip pub properties for commercial and residential real estate.
In some cases, these sales deprive communities of the last social institution still standing. In rural areas like my hometown Stroud, many pubs have taken on functions more commonly found in a community center. The Prince Albert, for example, doubles up as a small music venue and a food bank collection point; it hosts two choirs, a book club, carols through the winter months, debates during elections and even drop-in sessions with local councilors. This is common across austerity Britain.
My own local is The King’s Head, which has been serving the tiny village of France Lynch for nearly 300 years. Its publican, Mike Duff, is cautiously optimistic. “Behaviors don’t change so quickly,” he told me. “One of our regulars still walks here every day during lockdown, sits alone outside for 20 minutes and then goes home. He’s been doing it for so many years now, it’s not like coronavirus can stop him.”
The British government has been rightly criticized for its blundering response to the pandemic, so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that it has done little to protect pubs. But this is a sector of the economy that matters. It’s worth saving.
The new pub task force faces a complex balancing act: not just ensuring pubs can reopen in a manner that protects public health, but also intervening so they are not the next casualty of the pandemic. To avoid total collapse, pubs should be offered a rent holiday. On May 14, one of the largest “pubcos,” at the urging of 60 members of Parliament, offered its 4,000 renters a three-month “rent credit.” It’s a good start, but not enough. The government should also provide further grants for businesses that cannot reopen with social distancing measures in place, for fear of the fall in trade they will suffer.
Without that, we risk a narrowing of social life — where we raise a final glass to the pub from the limits of our living rooms.
Eleanor Salter is a writer and activist.